INTERVIEW: HELEN BALL – A CIVIC DUTY

One thing I have come to appreciate about this website is the broad range of people who use it; from art and music lovers, to students, parents, arts facilitators, council arts workers and those at the top of arts organisations.
I’d like to put a face to some of those people behind some of the town’s favourite venues. The first up is Helen Ball, the Chief Executive of Barnsley Civic – the fantastic arts and entertainment venues in Central Barnsley.

Civic


You’ve worked in Barnsley now for a number of years. Tell me about where you’re originally from and how you ended up in South Yorkshire.

I’m originaly from Mirfield, which is a small town in West Yorkshire – Kirklees area. I grew up and went to school there. That’s where I got my passion for the performing arts; mainly though youth theatre and dance outside of school, as well as courses that I chose at school.

You studied drama and theatre at Bretton Hall. I know many of the performing arts students reading this will be interested to know how your career path developed over the years.
I originally left school with ambitions to be an actress. I auditioned for places in lots of different drama schools, and got accepted into a couple but financial constraints meant I couldn’t go to them and so I took a different route. I did a degree that focused more on the context of performance and from there I got into doing applied drama and theatre work, which meant lots of working with young people in education settings. I went on to work for myself for a while. I mainly did projects with young people at risk and in care. That was mainly youth theatre in Rotherham and Sheffield.
However, an opportunity arose to do a community arts role in Barnsley Council which appealed to me because it had a broader outlook and was a fixed term contract. I also met the man of my dream here in Barnsley.
That was the start of my working for BMBC over ten years ago. From then I progressed onto different roles within BMBC.

Prior to becoming Chief Executive of Barnsley Civic, you were the Head of Culture and Visitor Economy for Barnsley Council.
I was given the Head of Service position in 2009. Prior to that, I had two different positions within the authority. First was Community Arts Officer, which focused of the voluntary arts sector and participation in the arts. That was a fantastic grounding and enabled me to get to know the town and the people who lived here. I then took a step up and led the arts team. I had a small team of officers that I managed, and led on arts policy and strategy, as well as working with local groups and venues. The opportunity later arose for the head of services position, which I took. That gave me a much broader portfolio to work with.

There has been a lot of changes in Barnsley over the last decade. What changes have affected the up-take of arts the most and how do you see that changing in the future?
The receipt of European monies and funding into the borough has gradually been reduced. When I first came to Barnsley, there was a whole raft of funded projects operating within both venues and organisations, including those being led by the local authority, which enabled all kinds of local community based projects to happen. Not just the arts either – lots of other projects that were designed to regenerate communities. The sad thing is, is that as that money has seized to be more available because more deprived counties has joined the EU, and Barnsley in terms of its deprivations levels are now not in that in that bottom quadrant, there were somethings that were really important that didn’t have enough of an exit strategy or sustainability plan to survive. So, lots of activity came and went, which is a shame. Having said that, the benefit of having had that funding, put Barnsley on a trajectory towards improving its position – towards lifting its profile. I think the arts in particular has really seen the benefit of that, in regards to things like investment in The Civic and more broadly in regards to the authority’s commitment to culture generally and the investment in capital improvements it has made to its assets. Also, in the commitment it has made to supporting the arts in other areas such, as schools and in social care.

It has just been announced that £41 million of investment has been earmarked for Barnsley town centre, which will include retail and leisure development, along with a new purpose built library. How would you like to see some of that money spent in regards to the arts?
That’s a big question. I think I would like to see, in capital investment terms at least, a way in which the town would become much more connected. So that people can navigate their way through town a lot easier.
At the moment I think there are areas of Barnsley town centre that are never populated. There are areas of the town centre that have very high footfall, but very much passing footfall. Dwell time, I think has always been an issue. People don’t stay long enough, either to shop or to simply just enjoy the town. Whatever physical improvements can be made to the town to get that better flow and to facilitate people enjoying things like the town hall gardens and accessing our venue, The Cooper Gallery, alongside having a really good shopping experience – that would be the top of my list.
As to what that would look like, I don’t know. I’m quite open to seeing how that would be. I’d like to think they will continue in the vein they have already; making it feel fresher, younger, forward thinking and embracing the beauty of the architecture that is already here, and giving it a new lease of life.
There is a lot of need to get the community to embrace these physical improvements, and I think they need to do that alongside the project.

Did you have a personal highlight of working at BMBC’s Barnsley Museums? You will have seen a lot of events, exhibitions and projects in that time?
The obvious highlight would be the Experience Barnsley Museum. The team had worked so hard and it’s been such a long time coming. However, looking back, a personal highlight is an exhibition of Renaissance art at Cannon Hall about three years ago. It featured the Canaletto that’s in their collection, along with a whole raft of other fine pieces. The collections team succeeded in drawing in a speaker for the private view who had a very high-profile and who was very knowledgeable in terms of the work. He was one of the leading gallerists in the south of England and having him there, at that time, elevated that whole evening. It demonstrated to me the wealth of riches we had at our disposal. He was so enthusiastic about the work, and Cannon Hall too. It really gave everybody that sense of ‘yes, it is worth us doing all of this’.
One of the nicest things for me was seeing the team recognised for their work. One of the first times we had a real investment in an events programme was probably Christmas time 2009 or 2010, and we did a big Christmas light switch-on and themed events. It felt to me as if the team had been recognised centrally – both within the authority and politically. People sat up and saw that culture and the arts were important.

It’s funny how something like the 2013 Town Hall Christmas lights switch on was almost unanimously praised, whereas people often still struggle to embrace modern art or the arts, or don’t see the connection between the arts and events like those.

You’re right. Sometimes they don’t. That can change though.
I remember one All Diversity Festival; it was just me and my colleague Matt that oversaw the whole festival. We decided to put an event on in the reception rooms in the Town Hall following full council and every single elected member came along and watched Indian dance, next to Chamber Music, next to fine art, and to me that was a real step forward because it suggested that there was an appetite. It needs to be in front of their faces all of the time, because once they see it, they love it and support it. We need to keep those ambassadors.

It’s a great thing having the museum inside of a working town hall, because it means that councillors are exposed to the arts every single working day.

So, why did you move to Barnsley Civic?
A couple of reasons. In the last period of my Head of Service role, my portfolio got to the point where it included Town Centre Services; markets and litter picking, right through to parks and gardens, cemeteries and burial grounds, and sports development. It just got bigger and bigger. Whilst for me it was great to have the opportunity to grow as a leader and manager. It also took me further and further away from my passions, which is essentially the arts and young people, and being able to allow them to experience themselves and to have a quality arts experience. I think I was starting to feel too distant from that and I had reached a point where I could continue my career in local government or look for alternatives.
The Civic wasn’t originally on the list, but circumstance and fate led me to a position where I was asked to look after it while they recruited for the Chief Exec post. In that time, I got to know the team and the venue a little bit better. I grew passionate about it. I also now lived in Barnsley with my two young children and I wanted them to have the best they can on their door step and I saw this as an opportunity to contribute to that.

What challenges have you, or do you face here; especially in regards to local and national government cuts in the arts?
I think the main challenge, which the majority of subsidised arts organisation face, is the ever reducing public purse. Within that, the pressure to balance the artist and the commercial. That has always been there but it becomes increasingly more acute because you have not got as much subsidy to take the risks you’d like to take. The biggest challenge I have is financial sustainability.
It’s not going to be easy but there are many ways of supporting fundraising and different ways of working that haven’t been explored yet and we’ll keep working on that to improve our position. We’re going to be actively working in partnership locally too, which is always essential.

You’re not the only new person on the team here. Tell us about some of the others and what they’ll bring?
I’ve filled a couple of vacancies in operations. That’s very much about making sure we have an exceptional standard of customer care, no matter what the service is – the gallery, the theatre or even during people’s own events. I won’t tolerate anything less than excellent. The team was already very strong, so that has now been enhanced, which is fantastic.
I have also recruited into a senior marketing role, which is always a difficult appointment to make. You need someone who has not only got the skills and abilities to promote the product, but you also need someone who can develop an affinity and understanding locally. I’m really pleased in the appointment I have made in Miz, because she is new to Barnsley and its idiosyncrasies, and so has a fresh take on everything. She is also very outgoing, bubbly and friendly, just like Barnsley people. My Marketing Manager has to be my Number 2 in terms of being the face of the organisation and I really think it was the right decision. I hope she chooses to move to Barnsley too. Barnsley has that unique ability to suck people in.

It’s The Civic’s 5th birthday this year. How are you going to mark that?
Lots of different things. The programme is full of local talent, but the main focus for the birthday itself is we are going to have a big open weekend around the 16th May. We’ll programme the whole weekend from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon with a mixture of unique events. Many free, some ticketed; all with the idea to encourage people who have not been before to come inside the building and get a feel for it and explore. It will also encourage people who have visit before to come back, reflect and celebrate what has been achieved. I also hope to capture people’s views and ideas about going forward. I want to demystify it. The Civic is not a sterile council building, it is an independent charity which is trying to offer Barnsley people the best that we can in a community facility and in artistic entertainment.

Do you have any personal highlights from your spring season?
There are a few. I’m very much looking forward to Gary Clarke’s Lustrum because I’m essentially a dancer at heart. I love his work anyway, but the idea and concept of choreographing pieces in a week and then putting them on for the audience is something that excites me.
I am also looking forward to Sacha Ferrier’s exhibition. One, because I think the work is amazing and I think it deserves a platform. But two, because it gives us a fantastic opportunity to work with a local artists of such talent. We are hosting an anniversary exhibition for Barnsley Hospice too, and they will be connected to some of the things we are doing with Sasha’s work. So, it’s going to be great to be building a new connection with them as an organisation. It’s going to be really special.
Also, I am a Shakespeare fan, so I am really looking forward to Othello this season.

Do you have any personal favourites when it comes to local artists and musicians?
There are a few I definitely follow – Gary Clarke being one of them. I like to follow his career. He’s achieved a lot in an art form that it is very difficult to progress in. The thing I like about him is that he champions the town he is from wherever he goes.
Visual Arts is something quite new to me – I’m from a dance and drama background. I’m getting to know lots of artists now, like Sacha and Iain Nicholls. One of the joys of this job is discovering new local talent.

Can you tell me a little something about the Barnsley Music Hub and your role in that?
Barnsley Music Education Hub is an organisation that is set up to champion and promote opportunities for children and young people to enjoy, participate and progress in music.
The Music Hub is a national initiative which came from the current government decision to withdraw direct investment into local authorities for music education, and direct it under the control of the Arts Council. Two and a half years ago, music education services nationally had to apply for Music Hub Status, to be able to access funds and put programmes. They had to demonstrate that they were going to work in partnership and to broaden their offer, rather than it be just traditional, peripatetic teaching and that it would allow students access to independent musicians, organisation, professional arts organisation and also create more opportunity for those students to perform in professional venues.
I was asked to be Chair when the hub was set up, while I was in my previous role. I hope I was selected for my passion about giving young people an opportunity. The thing I love about the hub is that it is young person centred and about the child learning.
I lead the governance model for it. It’s something I’m very excited about and I’m pleased to say that from the 1st April Barnsley Music Service will be resident here. All of the young people will be having their lessons in my building.

It’s still difficult to get people through the doors of galleries and theatres in Barnsley. There is often a preconception that the arts are not for them, and there are often other factors at play too. What do you think puts people off participation in the arts, and what would you say to people who have yet to visit The Civic?
I think there is a combination of factors. Increasingly people are time-poor. The time they have to be able to socialise or to be free in what they decide to do is getting increasingly limited. Those who are in a position to work are often working longer or irregular hours. Also, for those like myself who have a young family, it can be difficult to find the time. To some extent, finding the money to buy tickets is difficult too.
There is a uniqueness about Barnsley, which means that at 5 o’clock everybody disappears from the town centre and maybe that is a cultural thing which comes from previous geography of the borough which existed around pit and pit villages. People didn’t go into town unless it was Saturday or market day and they were shopping. Barnsley doesn’t have the reputation of somewhere you can go in an evening to do things other than going to the pub.
It is difficult, and we have the added difficulty of being a venue where not everybody is clear as to what it does and what it is here for. When it was originally developed the PR campaign could have been better thought through. There was a lot of coverage given to what it wasn’t, rather than celebrating what it was going to be. Still now, you meet people who don’t know it’s here or what we do. So I think it’s less so about why they wouldn’t come in and more they don’t know what’s available and how to get here. We need to concentrate on reaching out to people and that takes time.

In regards to marketing, it can often be a case of preaching to the converted. How do you go about getting new people in?
It’s hard. We are always trying new networks and relationships locally and to try to get information out there. There is an increasing pressure for everything to be digital or on facebook. That works to a degree, but there is something more opportune about picking something up in a newspaper or magazine. Getting people through the door for the first time is always the biggest challenge. I am a firm believer though that once you have them, it is the experience that governs everything else, and I will fill this place with any means possible.

Finally, what is your overall view of the current state of the arts in Barnsley?
I think what we have here is really good for a town of our size. The population here is not massive and I think that we are very lucky to have the range we have on offer. For just theatre, we have The Lamproom, The Civic, Birdwell Academy, The Dearne Playhouse, all within a short distance of each other and all offering something a little bit different and special. I know there is a wealth of individual artists that live and work locally, particularly visual artists and writers. They might be quite solitary in their practice but they are out there. There is a real sense of the undiscovered. Nearly every week there is a new story about a young talent being picked to dance somewhere internationally, or stories of local bands. There is a real energy and talent that often gets dismissed because for a long time people have perpetuated this myth that Barnsley is rubbish and for some that is safe. There is sometimes a reluctance to change. People want a Barnsley they recognise, but I think with the investment that is potentially round the corner, I hope that gives our young talent the chance to flourish, and hopefully they’ll not fly too far away from home.

http://www.barnsleycivic.co.uk

CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW FULL JANUARY - APRIL 2014 BROCHURE

CLICK IMAGE TO VIEW FULL JANUARY – APRIL 2014 BROCHURE

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